Clinton Strategy: Bite-Sized Initiatives

President pushes air bags, academic standards, not sweeping laws

Call it the soft power of the presidency. In the absence of a loyal party following in Congress, without the wherewithal to sponsor epic Roosevelt-like social activism, and with his legacy on the line, Bill Clinton has come to depend heavily on leaving his mark through the sheer force of his own words and public persona. Rhetoric and persuasion - not proposed legislation - has become the focus of Mr. Clinton's agenda and travel schedule. This week it was the Presidents' Summit for America's Future, designed to spark interest in volunteerism. Road trips to promote national education standards resume shortly. At home at the White House, he has pushed school uniforms, air-bag safety, and the importance of early childhood development. "There is no money, what can he do but these little baby steps?" says University of New Orleans professor Carol Gelderman, author of "All the Presidents' Words: The Bully Pulpit and the Creation of the Virtual Presidency." Hard power is the traditional presidential province. As coined by former chairman of the National Intelligence Council Joseph Nye, who used it in a geopolitical context, the phrase refers to force: militaries, elbow bending, do-this-or-else-that-bridge-in-your-district-is-toast. "Soft power," on the other hand, is based in example and persuasion. That's the approach Clinton seems to be taking more and more. And why not? He has little hard power at his disposal, in domestic terms. Ms. Gelderman says Clinton's work with his speechwriters has been effective in keeping a steady pulse in a second term that's been hampered by an ongoing series of investigations. Both houses of Congress are closely examining campaign fund-raising irregularities. Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr recently won an additional six months to pursue his investigation beyond May. Others are less charitable about the issues involved. "It is the symbolic inflation of micro-policy" says Steve Schier, chairman of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Mr. Schier says it was Dick Morris who perfected the strategy. Mr. Morris, the disgraced ex-presidential adviser, determined which issues were important to Americans, no matter how small, and applied the symbolism of the Oval Office to create the image of a president in touch. There is a danger, Schier says, in feeding the public a diet of presidential decrees that in the aggregate do not add up to much. That doesn't mean, however, that the president is being disingenuous. "He believes in all this stuff," says Schier. The recent White House announcement of a letter asking the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the possibility of banning liquor advertising on television fits right into this pattern, according to one presidential observer. "I think the FCC has grounds to act," Clinton said to reporters citing a determination to take Presidential action after the industry decided to lift its 50-year ban on such ads. "Liquor has no business with kids, and kids should have no business with liquor," the President said adding television advertisements provide a message of encouragement to drink that young kids simply don't need. "The upside to this is it shows he is up on things and busy at work," observes Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. On the other hand, "None of these issues are big enough to overcome the campaign finance story," he says. The axiom of presidential politics before the current administration was, if in trouble, find a diversion bigger than the problem. During Mr. Reagan's crisis over the Iran-Contra scandal, the administration used the larger issue of arms control and the cold war threat to divert attention. "This tactic [of Clinton] is different in the sense it was designed not to divert attention but to appeal to voters in the last successful election. It's another strategy from the campaign that won't translate," predicts Mr. Fitzwater. In his second term, Clinton has released a stream of such issues. They include a repackaging of his position on cloning, restating his existing policy banning federal funds for research involving human cloning. (He signed a similar executive order back in 1994.) Clinton has promoted public-service announcements encouraging mentoring, and visited several state legislatures, including Maryland and Michigan, to stress the importance of school standards. At one recent Oval Office event, the president signed an executive initiative aimed at tightening access visiting foreigners in the US have to firearms.

"I've never noticed any major trends of foreigners committing crimes [with guns]" says Neal Knox of the Firearms Coalition, a pro-gun organization in suburban Maryland. Even White House spokesman Mike McCurry was at a loss to explain other cases involving firearm wielding foreigners causing the president concern.

For any of these initiatives to catch on with the voting public, past communications officials in the executive branch believe an issue has to be repeated at least three times in a large national forum to break through. By some accounts, only two of the President's micro-policy initiatives have broken through: Air bags and aviation safety. But there are likely to be plenty more to come as the White House insists it will not be pinned down by either congressional inertia or near-daily campaign fund-raising irregularities. "The public sifts through the chaff and finds the wheat" says former Clinton adviser Morris.

Clinton's 62 percent approval ratings during January have slipped to the low 50 percent range recently. Nevertheless, Gelderman says that the president is on course, pursuing the right issues.

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